Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) is occasionally referred to as a ‘journeyman’ artist. However, it would be entirely wrong to imagine him on the move from place to place soliciting commissions. During the 18th century, his services as a portraitist were in constant demand from royals, aristocrats and other elite clients across Europe.
Liotard’s sitters included Louis XV of France, Pope Clement XII, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Marie Antoinette, and the future George III of Great Britain, while he was Prince of Wales.
What made the artist so special? According to the English novelist and art historian Horace Walpole, ‘truth prevailed in all his works’. Which is to say that Liotard was a realist whose ‘likenesses were as exact as possible’. Flattery wasn’t in his repertoire, yet that never diminished his popularity among the eminent figures of his day.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the fact that he worked chiefly in pastel rather than oils. Pastel consists of powdered pigment that’s mixed with a binder to form sticks in various colours; those sticks are then applied to paper or vellum.
The British Prime Minister was so delighted with a Liotard portrait of his son that he paid twice the agreed price for it
Nowadays we tend to regard pastel as suited to expressive mark-making, as exemplified so masterfully in the late 19th century by Degas. In the medium’s golden age, the 18th century, the likes of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour and Rosalba Carriera produced pastel portraits of a feathery quality. In contrast to all those artists, Liotard used the medium to create works of exquisite smoothness and verisimilitude.
In 1763, the British Prime Minister, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, was so delighted with a Liotard portrait of his eldest son that he paid twice the agreed price for it.
Born in Geneva, then an independent city state, the artist had a cosmopolitan career that took him to Paris, London, Venice, Vienna, Amsterdam and, for a spell between 1738 and 1742, Constantinople.
It was in the Ottoman capital that he began sporting a waist-length beard and red kaftan, both of which he would keep after returning west. They can be seen in several self-portraits, and ended up serving as a form of promotion: Liotard came to be known by the nickname of le peintre turc (the Turkish painter).
Apparently, he only shaved his beard off when his Dutch fiancée insisted on it as a prerequisite for their getting married. The couple wed in 1756 and would settle in Liotard’s home town, which was then undergoing civil unrest because of its leaders’ perceived betrayal of Geneva’s Calvinist roots and subservience to France.
In 1758, the artist created Portrait of Philibert Cramer (below) — which is offered in the online Old Master & British Drawings sale (14-28 January) at Christie’s.
Its dashing young subject ran an important Geneva publishing house with his brother, Gabriel. The Cramers were the principal publishers of Voltaire and responsible for the first editions of major works such as the novel Candide.
Many of Voltaire’s letters to the brothers survive. With characteristic wit, he once joked that their chief interest wasn’t literature but ‘playing cards, having supper with the Duc de Villars, taking ladies around in their carriage and enjoying life’.
But the Frenchman’s affection for the Cramers was undeniable. He often referred to Philibert as le prince de Genève.
Liotard has drawn hair that you want to comb and clothes you want to touch
In the portrait — which comes to the market courtesy of one of Philibert’s descendants — Liotard depicts a handsome, charismatic 30-year-old. As was the artist’s wont, he both bathes his sitter in a bright, even light and renders him in gorgeous clothing against a plain background. Cramer wears a sky-blue coat embroidered with silver, over a white shirt with ruffles. His arms are folded in a way that oozes self-assurance and intellectual flair.
Liotard has drawn hair that you want to comb and clothes you want to touch. No strokes are visible, just a porcelain-like sheen, achieved by pressing his pastel sticks deep into the paper. According to Neil Jeffares in his Dictionary of Pastellists Before 1800, ‘such pressure altered the reflectivity of the pastel compared with lighter application’.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
In 1763, five years after this portrait was executed, Cramer left the family firm to move into politics. He would go on to become the Swiss ambassador to France, a turn of events upon which Voltaire couldn’t resist passing ironic comment.
‘The Republic of Geneva has sent my publisher as ambassador to Versailles,’ he wrote. ‘I suppose the [French] King will send his bookbinder to Switzerland to make peace there next.’